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Making the Great Stride Outward: Volunteering and Recovery

Network, Fall 2006

‘I didn’t know I had anything to give until I started volunteering,’ says Linda Stewardson. ‘I tell you, that experience changed my life. It gave me my life. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t started volunteering.’ Where she is now: a happy, healthy wife and mother who fills her days with volunteer activities, raising her active 16-month-old adopted son and doing motivational speaking about her experience with mental illness and addiction.

As Linda attests, people with mental health issues can benefit tremendously from volunteering. For some, the volunteer experience is a positive first step in finding or returning to paid employment. It provides a gradual introduction or reintroduction to the workplace environment. At the same time, volunteering offers its own benefits. The power relationship between recruiter and volunteer may be more balanced than that between employer and employee. There is likely to be a support network, often free of limitations imposed by the workplace social hierarchy. And volunteering, like employment, can bring a sense of belonging, purpose and self-development.

What barriers prevent people with mental illness from volunteering? Not lack of skill, professionalism, dedication or social skills – but more often lack of confidence that they have anything worthwhile to offer. And lack of the offer to volunteer. Which is puzzling, when volunteer coordinators in the nonprofit sector compete fiercely for a rapidly shrinking pool of volunteers.

Four years ago, a staff member at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Thunder Bay Branch approached Linda about volunteering after she had participated in one of their programs. Although Linda was clean and sober, she felt her life had no purpose. She describes herself as being in constant crisis, in and out of psychiatric hospitals with repeated suicide attempts. ‘The people at CMHA made me feel good, and they were sensitive towards me. My self-esteem was really low but when I started to do things that helped people, I felt good about myself. My life changed. No way I would be stable enough to have had a child – I was pretty messed up before I began volunteering, very depressed, and suicidal… and now I have so much happiness!’

Linda sees her volunteering as fundamental to her recovery from severe childhood abuse and debilitating depression. ‘The volunteering worked for me kind of like medication. It gave me so much purpose and hope and it kept my spirits up, so that I could work on my underlying issues in therapy,’ she says. She feels that volunteering helped her move outside of her shell of illness and isolation, into a world of making a difference to other people individually and in large groups. She does television appearances, speaks in high schools, and received the Courage to Come Back Award from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2004.

Linda credits her volunteering with helping her continue to stay well. ‘After what I’ve been through, so many people look up to me now, and I’m a role model to them.’ She has interacted with hundreds of people who have needed education, support and hope. This puts a kind of positive pressure on her to continue to stay well.

Shelley Nummikoski, a mental health worker with CMHA Thunder Bay, says she doesn’t supervise Linda or any of her volunteers who have a mental illness any differently from those who don’t. ‘We always come with sensitivity and support, no matter what difficulties the volunteer may be facing. Our volunteers come from all walks of life with different issues and challenges.’ She says that accommodating volunteers is part of the job, regardless of the reason for the accommodation. Sometimes volunteers need to take a break, because of a setback in their illness or other reasons unrelated to mental illness.

She says that volunteer managers who don’t have an understanding of mental illness may make fear-based decisions. ‘We really don’t focus on the diagnosis, but focus on the person, getting to know them as a human being for who they are, and not being so stuck on labels.’

Susan Roach agrees. She is the program manager at the Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre, where she works with eight staff members and manages 45 volunteers. Every staff member and volunteer at the centre has a mental illness, and all staff are former volunteers. See says that the illness is secondary to ‘who the person is.’

She chuckles when asked about challenges she faces in managing volunteers with mental illness. It’s not lack of skill, commitment, interest or reliability, but lack of self-confidence that she identifies as her biggest management challenge. ‘Helping the volunteers have the same faith in themselves that I do, helping them overcome their fear and gain self-esteem – helping them make the great stride outward to try new things. I feel like a cheerleader, saying, ‘You can do it!”

When volunteers at the Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre grow in confidence and start looking beyond what the resource centre can offer, Susan faces another challenge. Successful volunteers who have a tremendous amount of skill and dedication need to move out into the world – a world full of stigma and misunderstanding about mental illness, where they may face powerful external barriers to recruitment. ‘Fortunately, we have helped some of our volunteers go on to other organizations like hospitals and residences for seniors,’ Susan says proudly. ‘But,’ she continues, ‘sometimes the results of a police record check [which may flag apprehensions under the Mental Health Act or other illness-related contacts with the police] can make this needlessly difficult, and both the volunteer and the organization can lose out.’ [For more information about police record checks, see ‘Information of Concern.’]

What do volunteers with mental illness need? Nothing special, according to Vincent. He’s 26 years old, has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and volunteers at his local CMHA in the public education program ‘Kids on the Block.’ Since joining the program three years ago, he has been promoted to coordinator and handles scheduling, customer service, and volunteer management, as well as taking on other duties at the CMHA branch office. Among all the volunteers in his city, Vincent was awarded the Mayor’s Award for Volunteerism in 2005 – not because he has a mental illness, but because he’s a great volunteer.

What workplace accommodations does he need? ‘Well, I just take longer to do some things,’ Vincent explains. ‘I have some rituals. I check a lot. Anyone looking at me wouldn’t know that I do this. I’ve never had to ask for more time, and it’s never been a problem. I always get my tasks done.’

In fact, Vincent thinks that having a mental illness has contributed to his volunteering success. ‘There are a lot of skills that you learn when you have a mental illness, and those skills can be put into your job and the way you work in an organization. For example, pacing yourself. When you have a mental illness, you learn how to pace yourself, like when you need to slow down.’ Volunteers who have self-awareness and can independently pace themselves make the coordinator’s job a whole lot easier – especially important when coordinators are often strapped for time and resources, doing a full-time job in part-time hours.

Susan Roach enjoys describing the success stories of the eight staff at the Haldimand-Norfolk Resource Centre who have moved from volunteering to paid employment. Volunteer coordinators without a background in mental health may expect people with mental illness to be unreliable. Susan disputes this perception. ‘Absenteeism among our staff is remarkably low. We’ve had maybe three missed shifts in a year and a half.’ Her volunteers, too, demonstrate remarkable commitment to their work. She says that the key is not focusing on the volunteer’s illness, but rather ‘getting to know the person first, and everything else becomes secondary. If we get caught up in the illness, we often lose sight of the person.’

Regarding behavioural issues, Susan responds to volunteers with mental illness ‘the same as I did when I worked outside the mental health environment. I hold people responsible for their behaviour, whether they have an illness or not, and I would expect the same for me, even though I have an illness.’ Susan applies an approach similar to the Mental Health Works strategy (see ‘Tips for Managing Volunteers’ below). She adds, ‘We won’t set someone up to fail, and we also won’t let them off the hook. Most of the time through conversation we discover that the task was a bad match,’ a possible pitfall for any volunteer placement.

Jean Montgomery, program coordinator at CMHA Haldimand-Norfolk Branch, which shares space at the resource centre, sums up her branch’s experience: ‘Our volunteers exhibit a real sense of commitment, resulting in improved marketable skills and an increase in self-esteem and confidence. It truly is a pleasure to include volunteers on our team and see such wonderful results.’

Through volunteering, people who have a mental illness can make that great stride outward from isolation and hopelessness toward connection and accomplishment. By looking outward, and making the great stride toward people with mental health issues, volunteer recruiters can enhance their organization by increasing diversity, filling their volunteer positions, and, most of all, gaining highly dedicated and skilled volunteers.

Donna Hardaker is a community mental health analyst with CMHA Ontario.


Volunteer coordinators at non-profit organizations who don’t have a background in mental health may feel ill-equipped to deal with volunteers who display signs of mental health problems. As with any employment situation, it is the manager’s responsibility to address issues promptly and professionally. But how?

CMHA’s Mental Health Works program helps managers in the workplace to address employee mental health issues, and volunteer managers can use the same approach.

Mental Health Works strategy:
1. I notice…
2. I’m concerned…
3. Let’s focus on solutions.

To overcome communication barriers: Use observational, neutral statements. Show that you care about your volunteer. Explain the problem and why it’s an issue. Offer help and/or accommodation. Stay focused on solutions.

For more information about Mental Health Works,


Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, ’employment’ refers to full-time employees, temporary and casual staff, contract workers, medical and personal attendants, and volunteers.

Volunteers have the same right to freedom from discrimination in the workplace as paid employees. Disability, including mental illness, is one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. This means that throughout the recruitment, hiring, training and termination process, organizations must provide reasonable accommodation to volunteers with disabilities when required to help a volunteer do the job. Accommodations are ‘reasonable’ so long as they don’t impose ‘undue hardships’ on the employer.

Most accommodations for people with mental illness are easy to implement, inexpensive, and demonstrate a commitment to a healthier, more equitable workplace. They usually involve flexibility with scheduling or adapting of tasks. For volunteers who have physical disabilities, the cost of special equipment or workplace assists may be difficult to fit in to the ever tightening budgets of non-profit organizations. However, before an organization can claim undue hardship, it is expected to seek outside sources of funding.

» Return to Network, Fall 2006 – Contents